Archive | Life as a Writer

Studying with Barbara Abercrombie

Abercrombie seminarOn Sunday, I attended a one-day writing seminar in my new home town of La Canada. Honestly, the location was the only reason I signed up. My mom was in town, and the timing wasn’t great, but I’m on a bit of a mission to find a community of writers here and this seemed like an opportunity with some potential.

Funny enough, the person I most enjoyed getting to know was the instructor, Barbara Abercrombie, who doesn’t actually live or work in La Canada at all. But her son and his family do, and she is considering making the move from the west side to our little town. It would be a big shift. If you don’t live in southern California, it’s difficult to understand that the east side and west side are actually very different places.

You might think, what’s the big deal, it’s all LA, right? But you’d be wrong. West siders have the beach, east siders have the mountains, and between us is a world of traffic that only a fool would traverse on a regular basis. In fact, I’ve met many people who simply say they don’t cross Normandie, not for nobody, no how.

Anyhow, I’m getting off topic. Abercrombie usually teaches at UCLA Extension (on the west side). In fact, her teaching style reminds me a bit of my class with Mark Sarvas in the Extension program. She is very encouraging and diplomatic. She didn’t let anyone commandeer the room, but still left space for kidding around. And the class size was perfect. There were only six students in the room.

The group that hosted Sunday’s event is putting together another seminar for October 2. It would be awesome if we could get some east-side writers to represent and draw Ms. Abercrombie to our side of the city, if only for a day.

I can’t find any information online for it yet, but stay tuned. I will be sure to post about it as it gets closer.

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The Pros and Cons of a Writing Routine

Since quitting my job in December, my weekday writing routine has been to get the kids off to school, work on my writing for two hours, and then devote the remainder of my day to my freelance work until it’s time to go get the kids. It was a good routine, until it wasn’t.

The trouble with writing routines is that the smallest thing can throw them off and disrupt your writing. Never mind the big things, like moving.

That was the first disruption I had this year. Moving to a new home not only drained all my energy and made it hard to find anything, it also just messed up my routine. I can’t even say why exactly, but in the old house, when I sat down to write, my brain knew it was time to engage. At the new house I found I was distracted by the tiniest things.

Then, just as I was beginning to adjust to the new space, the kids finished up school, and changed up our routine all over again. This is the first summer that I’m not working full time, and I love being home with them, but my routine has taken a serious hit. I feel like I am always scrambling to find time for the work that needs to be done for my clients, and then I end up squeezing in my own writing whenever I have time – which I rarely do.

It has raised the question in my head: is it more productive to have a regular writing routine, or better to avoid routine and be able to write anywhere, any time?

I would love to hear from the other writers out there, particularly those with kids. How do you juggle everything? Do you stick to a routine, or fly by the seat of your pants? I’m looking for a detailed daily breakdown here. Help a writer out.

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Keep The Channel Open

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”

-excerpt from Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham- A Biography

I love this quote. It reminds me who I am writing for: me. I write the stories I want to read, but it is a challenge every day to not compare myself with other writers. Every day I strive to keep the channel open, to not think about whether my work is valuable or not. I struggle every day to set aside the question of whether or not I even believe in myself.

Martha’s words remind me that writing is an art, and that I have a unique voice to add to the chorus of voices out there. In the same way I sing in the shower, I endeavor to write like nobody is reading, just for me.

This is probably only going to get harder, because eventually I do plan to pitch my novel to agents, and I hope to sell my book to a publisher, who will then attempt to market it to the masses. Every step of that process sounds like an exercise in humility.

But I guess I’ll jump off those bridges when I get to them.

For now – I write, and keep the channel open.

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The Very Real Costs of Submission

the cost of literary journal submissionI was looking at my journal submission spreadsheet the other day. I got another rejection (ug) and so I was checking to see where to send my story next.

I’ve blogged before about how I try to see rejection as getting closer to acceptance, but as I scrolled down the list of places I’ve submitted to over the past few months, it occurred to me that almost every time I send my story out I pay a fee.

Reading fees are modest, yes, but they do add up. In my experience, they fall somewhere between $10-15, with the average closer to $12. So far, I’ve submitted my most recent story 30 times. That’s about $360 in submission fees, give or take.

Considering that, when the story is finally published (as I’m confident it will be), payment will be in copies, the money I’m spending in pursuit of publication is not money that will be recouped. So what am I getting for my money?

The word that comes to mind is encouragement. Especially given that my most recent short story is an excerpt from the novel that I’m working on, having a journal publish it would be so encouraging.

There is also the slim, but real, chance that an agent might see my story and be interested in seeing more from me. That would be the best possible income.

But how much is that worth to me?

I can think of a lot of ways I could spend $1,000. None of them would get me an agent, but they are all better than pissing money away. If I simply want to throw money around, a weekend in Vegas would be a lot more fun.

I need to think seriously about the balance between cost and reward here. Maybe there are grants available for submission fees. Or maybe I should be submitting to contests with prizes instead of literary journals. Any writers out there have some wisdom on this one? I would love to hear it.

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I Love Ecuador

We just got back from a quick trip to Quito for a wedding. I realized while I was there that it’s been almost 10 years! I went once just after Daniel and I got engaged to meet the family, and then again a few years later to live with Daniel’s aunt, uncle, and cousins for a few months to study Spanish.

I had terrible altitude sickness on that second trip, or, at least I thought I did. After a few weeks, when I was still sick all day, I realized it had been a while since my last period. Turns out altitude sickness and pregnancy feel pretty much the same.

Anyway, it’s been far too long since I’ve been back. The bride on Saturday was one of the cousins I lived with when I was pregnant. I was so happy to get to be there for her wedding.

the bride in Quito Ecuador

A hug with the beautiful bride.

On Sunday we lazed around the family home in the mountains just south of Quito, eating, watching soccer, napping and (for me) writing. I could seriously get used to that lifestyle. I even started a new short story. It’s one I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while, and I think I’ve got a good start on it.

I’m in the airport in Phoenix, two plane rides down, one more to go to get back to my dad’s place in Northern Idaho. The kids are waiting there. I can’t wait to see them.

Here are a few photos from the trip.

Quito Ecuador

Our lunch table, looking out over the garden.

The patio in Quito, Ecuador

The patio where I spent the day writing.

Quito Ecuador

These pots actually get used. I love them.

locro in Quito Ecuador

Locro, a delicious stew with all the fixin’s.

Quito Ecuador

A pretty spot we found near the house.

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Entertaining Myself at LAS International

LAS airportI’m sitting at the airport in Las Vegas and two things have caught my attention. The first is that I can entertain myself for a while by taking pictures of people’s shoes as they walk by. The second is that the people on either side of me are both writing in journals, with pens.

The guy on my right is working in a large, unlined book, writing tidy paragraphs in blue ink – too small to read from here.

On my left is a woman writing in a smaller, lined journal. Her handwriting is full and curly, and she is close enough to spy on. Don’t hate. As a writer, peeking into people’s lives is an important part of my job. Oh, and I’m a terrible snoop. ANYWAY, she wasn’t writing anything all that exciting, just that she is “exhausted” and “got a lot of work done.”

The reason it caught my attention is not simply because I like to pry. I write in my own journal almost every day and sometimes I feel like that’s an uncommon thing. But it’s really not. For all our technology, people still like to hold a pen and paper. There is something so satisfying about writing in long hand.

I feel such a sense of kinship with these two and their journals. Makes me wish I hadn’t forgotten mine at home. I would much rather be writing in my journal than taking pictures of people’s feet. But, you know, what else am I going to do?

And why am I in the Las Vegas airport waiting for a delayed flight? I am on my way from Sandpoint, Idaho to Quito, Ecuador. I’ll forgive you if you need a minute to Google those to realize that it’s a long trip. My cousin-in-law is getting married on Saturday in Quito, so yesterday I flew with the kids to the great northwest where my dad lives with my step-mom in a lake-side condo. The kids are staying with them for the weekend.

I’m looking forward to a couple days with the hubby. I don’t even mind all the time I’m spending in airports. I’m actually getting a lot of work done (just like my fellow writer here on my left). The only bummer is that we’re not staying in Ecuador longer. We are basically turning around immediately after the wedding to get back to the kids.

Oh, looks like we may FINALLY be boarding.

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Celebrate Milestones

celebrate milestonesWriting a novel takes a long time. As my teacher Mark Sarvas told me once, you have to celebrate milestones along the way, because if you wait to celebrate just one final step (say, publication) you have to wait a long, long time.

So I am very happy to announce that I have finished (yet another) draft of my novel. Yay!

In truth, I wasn’t even going to blog about it, because it doesn’t feel like a very big deal. I’ve been here before. Officially, I think this is the seventh draft I’ve finished, but why bother taking classes if you aren’t going to listen to the advice that gets doled out? Tonight, we celebrate.

Another piece of oft-repeated Sarvas advice is to put your draft in a drawer and leave it there for a while so you can come back to it with a fresh eye for rewrites. I plan to follow that bit of advice as well, but not just yet. I have a few things I want to do before I put it aside. First, I am considering a new opening scene that needs to be written. Second, I want to go through, scene for scene and just make sure that I’m hitting the beats I intended to. Then, once I’m satisfied that it is actually a solid new draft, I will put it in a drawer.

I’m thinking I’ll leave it there all summer. I’m going to take the opportunity to work on my next novel. If you’ve been following along for oh, I don’t know, years, you know I hit a wall with novel number 1 a while back and took a break to outline novel number 2 – a story that’s been gaining steam in my head since way back before I was even a writer. It’s the story that made me want to be a writer. I am very excited to get back to working on it.

Doughnut anyone?

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Reconsidering the Day Job

day jobWay back in September, I was feeling pretty low. I had just taken a day job I thought was perfect for me, and I couldn’t figure out why I was so miserable. My therapist at the time gave me an assignment. He told me to write, without thinking, my top seven jobs, putting all reality aside. I had to do it quickly, off the top of my head. I remember that first on the list was novelist, then SCUBA instructor, photo journalist, Indiana Jones, backpacking guide, and I can’t remember the last two.

The telling thing was that most of my dream jobs would take me outdoors, with people. After I described my job’s working environment – a lonely square room with no windows – my therapist told me what I already knew. I needed to quit my job.

It was then I signed up to volunteer at Descanso Gardens, with their horticulture department. I wanted was to get my hands dirty and watch things grow. We still lived in Silver Lake at that point, but we were house hunting in La Canada. As it turns out, we now live about a mile from the gardens. It’s my new favorite place.

I seriously could spend all day there. So far, my schedule only allows for me to volunteer two hours a week, but as soon as the kids are back in school for the fall I want to start going more often. Yesterday I spent two hours pinching chrysanthemums. Sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it? To get the plants to bloom with lots of big flowers later in the year, you have to carefully pinch off new growth. Everywhere you pinch off a stem bud, two new stems will grow in. I fucking love nature.

Anyhow, the whole experience has me seriously rethinking my day job. Right now I’m doing freelance website development and social media marketing consulting. I like the work, and my clients are pretty awesome, but working online is nothing like working out in the garden.

It’s the kind of work I would continue to do, even if my novel sold for millions of dollars and I never had to work again. That’s a far cry from where I was last fall.

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Reading Like a Writer

Read like a writerFor a long time I thought reading like a writer meant simply reading a lot. That’s part of it. However, while reading is critical for writers, passively absorbing stories isn’t enough. To really read like a writer, you have to stop trusting writers.

Used to be that when people asked what I thought of a book, I would say “it was pretty good.” Sometimes it was “really good” or sometimes “meh,” but generally I was satisfied with anything that told a good story. I was reading like a reader.

Once I started writing, I grew more a little more critical. I started noticing loose ends of a story line, or particularly beautiful prose. But it wasn’t until I started reading unpublished work that I actually developed the ability to read like a writer.

As I mentioned in a previous post, reading submissions for a literary journal was a great way to get started, but I have read my share of stories for workshops as well. Preparing to give informed feedback meant being diligent, looking for all the little things I had learned in school, from split infinitives all the way up to story structure.

After years of reading unpublished work with this mindset, the practice has started to spill over into all the reading I do. After countless seminars and panels, I’ve started to realize that authors are (gasp) just people, and they don’t always get it right.

In some ways this sucks, because my threshold for a good read has gone way up. These days, to get lost in a book, it has to have everything right. So nowadays, when I say a book was great, what I mean is: it was so good that I forgot all about being a writer and just fell into it. Very few books hit that mark.

The next challenge is to bring that kind of eye to my own work. My understanding is that it’s not really possible unless you take some time away from your work, so step one is to finish the draft. Step two will be to put it in a drawer and forget about it for a while. Then I can come back to it and attempt to bring my most critical eye.

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Reading for a Literary Journal Will Make You a Better Writer

Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.

What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.

That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.

Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.

What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.

When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.

What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.

If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).

Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.

At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.

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